Eastern Front (1941)

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Eastern Front (1941)
Eastern Front (1941) cover.jpg
Developer(s) Chris Crawford
Publisher(s) APX, Atari, Inc.
Platform(s) Atari 8-bit
Release date(s) 1981, 1982
Genre(s) Turn-based strategy
Mode(s) Single player
Distribution Cassette, floppy disk, cartridge

Eastern Front (1941) is a computer game for the Atari 8-bit series created by Chris Crawford in 1981. Recreating the German invasion of Russia during World War II, Eastern Front covers the historical area of operations during the 1941–1942 period. The player commands German units at the corps level and must contend with the computer-controlled Russians, as well as terrain, weather, supplies and even unit morale and fatigue.

Eastern Front was widely lauded in the press. It is considered to be one of the first computer wargames that could compete with paper-and-pencil games in terms of depth of play.[1][2] According to Crawford, it is the first wargame to feature a smooth-scrolling map.[3][4]

Gameplay[edit]

Unless otherwise noted, this section refers to the original game manual, available here.
Opening scene in the original Eastern Front, showing the region around Leningrad.

Eastern Front puts the user in control of the Germans, in white, while the computer plays the Russians, in red. Units are represented as boxes for armored corps or cavalry, and crosses for infantry, an attempt to replicate conventional military symbols given the low resolution.

The screen shows only 1/9 of the entire map at one time, smooth-scrolling around it when the joystick-controlled cursor reaches the edges of the screen.[5] The map covers the area from just north of Leningrad at the top to Sevastopol at the bottom, and from Warsaw on the left to just east of Stalingrad on the right. The terrain is varied, including flatland, forests, mountains, rivers and swamps, each with their own effects on movement. Cities are displayed in white, and are a major source of "victory points", the player's score.

The game is modal, switching between an order entry mode and a combat mode. During order entry the joystick is used to select units and enter movement in the four cardinal directions. Up to eight orders can be entered for any unit. Orders are remembered from turn to turn, and new orders can be added in future turns after watching an animation of any remaining ones. The orders for any given unit can be cancelled by pressing the space bar.

After entering orders, the combat phase is started by pressing the Start function key. Units will attempt to follow their orders to the greatest extent possible, delayed by terrain, blocking friendly units, or combat with enemy units. The screen shows combat by flashing the "attacked" unit, which might be forced to retreat, or be destroyed outright. When all possible movement and combat is exhausted, the game returns to the order-entry phase. Each turn represents one week in-game time, and the game ends on March 29, 1942, after 41 turns.[6] The highest possible score is 255, and the documentation suggests that any score above 100 is good. Computer Gaming World estimated that the actual German army in 1941 scored 110 to 120.[7]

The game engine included a number of features that increased the "depth" compared to other wargames of the era. This includes muster and combat strengths, which simulated losses due to combat, as well as reinforcements that would slowly increase a unit back to muster strength over time. Supply lines are also simulated, and surrounding the enemy to cut off their supplies was an important strategy for the human player, who faces an overwhelming enemy numerical superiority. The game also includes the concept of "area of influence" which allows front lines to be constructed without requiring contiguous lines of units.

The most obvious effect in terms of gameplay was the changing of the seasons, with the rivers and land freezing from north to south. Winter and spring weather dramatically reduces mobility and supply levels, at which point the German side is forced into a purely defensive role. If the player can survive the winter, the arrival of spring offers a renewed offensive capability, but only for a short period before the game ends.

AI[edit]

In an example of pondering, the computer AI calculated its moves during the period between vertical blank interrupts (VBI). The rest of the game, what the user saw, was run during the VBI period of a few hundred cycles. According to Crawford in Chris Crawford on Game Design, the system started with a basic "plan" and then applied any available cycles to trying variations on that plan, selecting higher-valued outcomes. A few thousand cycles were available between each VBI, so given a typical order-entry phase of a minute, the computer had millions of cycles to spend on refining its plan.

The AI was based on three basic measures of the game state: the strategic situation which attempted to take and hold cities, the tactical situation which attempted to block player movements, and the overall arrangement of the front line.[8] The AI would first attempt to build a continuous front line in an attempt to prevent encirclements, it would then send additional units on intercept courses to block player movements, and finally any remaining units were sent to undefended cities.

Although the AI was not particularly strong, it made up for this with numbers. Against a player "playing fair" the computer could put up a credible defence. Direct fights were hopeless, as newly arriving units would eventually overwhelm the German forces. Crawford spent considerable time "tuning" the arrival of new units to balance the gameplay,[9] and warned that a player who attempted to overwhelm the Russians with tanks is "guaranteed to lose. What you are supposed to do is maneuver, encircle, demoralize, and defeat".[10] In typical games, the player would attempt to break eastward, and encircle the ever-growing block of Russian units. The Russians were short of the highly mobile armored units, at least early in the game, so it was possible to outmaneuver them and cut off their supplies, drawn from the far right edge of the screen.

According to Crawford, Eastern Front is an example of a game with a sharp jump in the learning curve; "apparently there is just one trick in the game, mastery of which guarantees mastery of the game". While he did not specify the trick,[11] there were ways to "game" the AI. One was to break the German forces into two blocks, and then advance them on alternate turns. The tactical part of the AI would attempt to intercept these movements, sending its mobile forces first one way, then the other, never actually making contact. Another strategy was to keep flanking forces behind a spearhead, which the AI would attempt to block. This would result in the computer forces clumping up in front of the Germans, allowing the wings to move in once motion was difficult.

One "bug" in the game engine was later exploited by players. Since the AI calculated its moves while the user entered their orders, reducing the amount of time the user took to plan their own moves reduced the quality of the computer response. This could be reduced to zero by pressing the Start key repeatedly, at which point neither the player or the computer would do anything. This way combat during the winter could be avoided entirely, allowing the player to break out the next spring with full-strength units.

Development and versions[edit]

Crawford wrote the first version of what he called Ourrah Pobieda (Russian for "Horray for the Motherland!") in May and June 1979 on a Commodore PET using Commodore BASIC. The game was at the time a division-level simulation of combat on the Eastern Front. He described the initial version as "dull, confusing, and slow", and did not return to the project for 15 months. After he began working for Atari, in September 1980 he saw a fellow employee demonstrate smooth scrolling in a text window on an Atari 8-bit and realized the technique's potential for a war game. By December he produced a smoothly scrolling map of Russia, in January 1981 produced a written description of the design for what he by now envisioned as a "48K disk-based game with fabulous graphics", and began working 20 hours a week during nights and weekends to produce a demonstrable game by the Origins Convention in July.[9]

Crawford first playtested the game in May and again found it disappointing. To simplify the project, he reduced the game's scope from the entire 1941-1945 campaign to just the first year; introduced zones of control to reduce the number of units and the burden on the computer's artificial intelligence; and added logistics, which permitted encirclement. Crawford also found that the game fit into 16K RAM instead of 48K, and worked to maintain the size. He distributed the game to other playtesters in June, demonstrated a playable version at Origins, then further refined the game for six weeks by fixing bugs and adjusting game balance.[9] In a 1987 interview, he estimated he had worked a total of 800 hours on Eastern Front, and that he believed that the game had influenced the industry to simplify user interfaces and prove that there was a market for an "intelligent", non-action game.[12]

Crawford approached Atari about selling the game, but the company felt that wargames for Atari computers would not be popular.[13] He turned to the Atari Program Exchange (APX), a separate Atari group that distributed third-party applications. APX began selling the game—renamed Eastern Front just before completion—in August 1981, and sold over 60,000 copies ($40,000 in royalties to Crawford).[14][9] By 1983 it was APX's best seller,[15] and APX offered a scenario editor by Crawford and user-created scenarios for the game;[16] its manager later said that Eastern Front paid APX's bills.[17] Crawford stated in 1987 that the game had been the most lucrative for him "by at least a factor of four",[12] and in 1992 that it had sold "fabulously well — far better than anybody (myself included) expected", with most purchasers not traditional wargamers.[18] Crawford released the source code to the game through APX for $49.95,[16] and was surprised that while it sold well, no third-party game used it.[19] The source code is now available on the internet, allowing it to be examined, although only within the Atari Assembler Editor, perhaps in an emulator.

Screenshot of cartridge version of Eastern Front (1941). This is the starting position for the 1942 scenario, the Russians having contained the Germans southwest of Moscow. Smolensk is centered just above the square pink cursor, with Minsk on the left and Orel in the lower right. A Russian infantry unit covers Moscow near the upper edge of the map.

The game was so successful that Atari asked Crawford to do a conversion to cartridge. Crawford took the time to make a new version, improving many aspects of the game. To improve the gameplay he revamped the AI code, and eliminated the ability to "fast forward" the game and avoid combat. Five "difficulty levels" were added, the "learner" mode with a single German unit in order to teach the user how to use the controls, and each level above that adding more units up to "advanced", which was identical to the original game. In the highest level, "expert", air force corps (Fliegercorp) were added, and the units could be placed in one of several "modes"; normal, assault, defend and move. In "expert" the user could also choose to start in either 1941 with the standard opening, or 1942, with fully developed lines deep within Russia. The new version also added the ability to save and restore games, colored cities to indicate ownership, and added city names to the in-game map (which were previously visible only in the manual). The conversion from APX to official Atari product was fairly rare, although Caverns of Mars and Dandy underwent similar conversions for the same reasons.

Crawford would go on to use many of the ideas pioneered in Eastern Front to produce Legionnaire for Avalon Hill in 1982. Legionnaire used the same map engine to simulate the Roman legions fighting the barbarians, but modified the engine to move units in real-time.[20] This made the game much more difficult to outthink than Eastern Front, as the human user was forced to find the enemy units on the map, plan strategy, and move their units at the same time.

Reception[edit]

Eastern Front received critical praise from contemporary magazines. Computer Gaming World in 1981 called it "to this date, the most impressive computer wargame on the market". The review praised the graphics and the artificial intelligence, noting its pondering, and suggested that the game would encourage consumers to purchase Atari computers.[21] In 1987 the magazine rated the game five out of five points, stating "obsolete by contemporary programming standards, it is still fun to play",[22] and in 1993 the magazine rated the game four stars out of five.[23] Jerry White gave the game a rating of 9.3 out of 10 in A.N.A.L.O.G. magazine, calling it "truly magnificent".[5] Compute! called Eastern Front "a paradigm for computer war games" and praised its graphics and gameplay, with the only major criticism being the inability to save and restore a game.[24] InfoWorld rated it "Excellent" overall in December 1981,[25] and later referred to it as one of "... the deepest computer games around."[10] Creative Computing stated that Eastern Front was "one of the very best war games available", and named it Game of the Year in 1981.[26] BYTE stated that Eastern Front "is possibly the first fun war game for people who hate war games".[27] Later reviews often use terms like "groundbreaking", "seminal" and "brilliant".

In 1987 Crawford stated that Eastern Front was one of the three games he was proud of, with Legionnaire and Balance of Power.[12]

References[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ "GOTCHA 1981 Winners: Eastern Front", see "Eastern Front 1941 was one of the first computer wargames to pass muster with hardcore board wargamers."
  2. ^ A Creative Computing review stated "I have no hesitation in calling this one of the very best war games available for a personal computer.", "Eastern Front: The Atari goes to War", reprinted in 1983 in The Creative Atari
  3. ^ Crawford, pg. 131
  4. ^ Chris Crawford, "Ga-Ga over Graphics", Works and Days, Volume 22 Issue 43/44 (2004), pg. 113
  5. ^ a b White, pg. 22
  6. ^ McMahon, pg. 94
  7. ^ Proctor, Bob (May–June 1982). "A Beginner's Guide to Strategy and Tactics in Eastern Front". Computer Gaming World. p. 10. 
  8. ^ Overview from examining the source code, available below.
  9. ^ a b c d Crawford, Chris (August 1982). "Eastern Front: A Narrative History". Creative Computing. p. 100. Retrieved 18 November 2013. 
  10. ^ a b Mace, pg. 34
  11. ^ Crawford, Chris (December 1982). "Design Techniques and Ideas for Computer Games". BYTE. p. 96. Retrieved 19 October 2013. 
  12. ^ a b c "Designer Profile: Chris Crawford (Part 2)". Computer Gaming World. Jan–Feb 1987. pp. 56–59. Retrieved 1 November 2013. 
  13. ^ Hague, see "Why was "Eastern Front" released through the Atari Program Exchange?"
  14. ^ Crawford, pg. 257
  15. ^ DeWitt, Robert (June 1983). "APX / On top of the heap". Antic. Retrieved 30 October 2013. 
  16. ^ a b "Eastern Front (1941) Scenario Editor / Eastern Front Scenarios 1942, 1943, 1944 / Source Code for Eastern Front (1941)". APX Product Catalog. Fall Edition 1983. pp. 61–62. Retrieved 29 July 2014. 
  17. ^ Kevin Savetz, "Fred Thorlin: The Big Boss at Atari Program Exchange", April 2000
  18. ^ Brooks, M. Evan (1992-08). "Wargaming Personalities Debate Hobby's Future". pp. 114–115. Retrieved 3 July 2014. 
  19. ^ Hague, see "Was it your idea to sell the source code?"
  20. ^ DeWitt, pg. 34
  21. ^ Greenlaw, Stanley (November–December 1981). "Eastern Front". Computer Gaming World (review). pp. 29–30. Retrieved 31 October 2013. 
  22. ^ Brooks, M. Evan (April 1987). "Kilobyte Was Here!". Computer Gaming World. p. 6. 
  23. ^ Brooks, M. Evan (1993-09). "Brooks' Book of Wargames: 1900-1950, A-P". Computer Gaming World. p. 118. Retrieved 30 July 2014. 
  24. ^ McMahon, Edward P. (February 1982). "Review: Eastern Front (1941)". Compute!. p. 94. Retrieved 6 October 2013. 
  25. ^ David Cortesi, "Eastern Front (1941), wargame from Atari Exchange", InfoWorld, December 7, 1981, pf. 34
  26. ^ DeWitt, pg. 56
  27. ^ "The Coinless Arcade". BYTE. December 1981. pp. 38–41. Retrieved 19 October 2013. 

Bibliography[edit]

General information and resources[edit]